More powerful than a locomotive, 300’s hot director, Zack Snyder, takes on his biggest comic-book action flick yet, the theatrical relaunch of the Superman franchise.
By Noela Hueso 12/02/2010
Zack Snyder thinks a lot of things are “awesome.”
Whether he’s talking about the upcoming Superman film he was recently tapped to direct — “It’s early in the process, but my main goal is to make it awesome” — or extolling the virtues of architecture in Pasadena, where he has lived since he was a student at Art Center College of Design in the late ’80s — “There are so many awesome places, especially if you like the Craftsman movement” — the 44-year-old director is excited.
It’s not hard to see why. Awesome can also be used to describe Snyder’s career over the past seven years. Ranked No. 25 on Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 list of the 50 smartest people in Hollywood, he started out as a commercial and music video director, becoming known for his stylish and sweeping visuals. But his big break came when he was chosen to direct the 2004 remake of George Romero’s cult horror classic Dawn of the Dead. It was a critical and commercial hit, enabling Snyder and his producer wife, Deborah Snyder, 40, to set up shop at Warner Bros.
His next venture, 2006’s 300, was an even bigger success, using a cutting-edge post-production technique to reproduce imagery from the comic book that inspired it. The action movie about a battle between 300 Spartans and a million Persians in 480 B.C. earned $456 million worldwide and international recognition for Snyder and his star, Gerald Butler. The director followed it up with the superhero saga Watchmen in 2009 and his first animated and family-friendly film, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which opened in September.
Next up is the fantasy action film Sucker Punch, opening in March, which Snyder wrote — it’s his first produced original script — as well as directed. Even more buzzworthy is his helming of Superman: Man of Steel, reportedly budgeted at $250 million and scheduled for release during the 2012 Christmas season. Producer-director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) handed him the Superman gig after months of Internet speculation about who would be directing the high-profile project. (Everyone from Darren Aronofksy to Robert Zemeckis was rumored to be the frontrunner.)
“He thinks like no one I’ve ever come in contact with,” Deborah says. “He really is brilliant — and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband.”
It’s a crisp late October morning and we’re sitting in the Warner Bros. bungalow that houses the Snyders’ production company, Cruel and Unusual Films. Back in the day, the space belonged to Jack Warner and, more recently, was home to George Clooney’s production operation. It’s a warm and inviting cluster of offices with a Southwestern vibe — though the mural-size photo on the wall of a pile of anatomically correct dolls (props from the 300 shoot) offers visitors a somewhat startling greeting.
With Venti cups of Starbucks coffee in hand, the couple are relaxed and chatty as they reflect on their life in Hollywood — and their deliberately un-Hollywood life in Pasadena. The Snyders may travel the world to create and promote their films, but at heart, they say, they’re homebodies.
“We really try not to go over the hill if we don’t have to, especially on the weekend,” Deborah says. “There’s a normalcy to Pasadena. It’s not Hollywood. It’s a great place for your kids to grow up. You can go into your coffee shop and the people know you.”
Favorite Pasadena haunts include the ArcLight and Gold Class Cinemas (where they go at least once a week with Zack’s four kids, ages 10 to 17), Mi Piace, Slaw Dogs, Violet’s Cakes (owned by Zack’s ex-wife, Denise) and Los Gringos Locos Mexican restaurant in La Cañada Flintridge. Many nights, Zack says, “we go, ‘Let’s just go to Los Gringos — screw making dinner.’”
Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, Snyder spent a year studying painting at London’s Heatherley School of Fine Art before landing in Pasadena to major in film at Art Center College of Design. (While USC is better known as an incubator for Hollywood, Art Center has turned out a number of filmmakers through the years, including director Michael Bay [Transformers, Pearl Harbor] and Oscar-winning writer Roger Avary [Pulp Fiction].) “They create a special culture that’s unique,” Snyder says. “It’s like a medical school in the sense that they expect you to give your life over to the place. I remember endless all-nighters — and not questioning that. They want the most professional version of what you’re doing and for you to have confidence in your work. They encourage and demand an excellence that I’ve taken into my professional life.”
Snyder’s intensity about his work has evoked equally intense reactions, both pro and con, with critics describing his style as everything from “breathtaking” (The Hollywood Reporter) to “artful excess” (Rolling Stone) and “overblown” (USA Today).
That’s just fine with him. “My aesthetic hasn’t changed dramatically over the years,” he says. “Sure, it has evolved — as you work and get more of a chance to make those pictures real, you definitely get an opportunity to hone your aesthetic — but I feel like I’m doing the same stuff that I’ve always done since I was a kid.”
What he hadn’t done, until recently, was make films for kids. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was Snyder’s response to his children’s complaint that they were never allowed to see his films. “I’ve always been really clear with the fact that my movies are not meant for kids,” he says.
But he wasn’t about to make just any age-appropriate movie. “When you’re spending three-plus years of your life, that can’t be the only reason you’re making a film,” Deborah says. “So while we were looking for something that they could come see, it had to be the right story and it had to be something that Zack had a vision for.”
Based on the children’s books by Kathryn Lasky, Guardians fit the bill. Snyder found that the tale of a young barn owl that escapes and fights his captors with the help of new friends had the scope and grandeur he’s drawn to. “Making an animated movie is very similar to the way I make a movie anyway,” he says. “I storyboard everything and pan everything really carefully. I’m very specific about the way that I make shots, and everyone has my drawings so they’re very clear on what I want to do. In the animation process, that [work style] translates really nicely. It’s the next step — the layout, rough animation and the background — that I’m really learning. That’s really where you also rely so much on the animators and the layout guys to make that stuff work.
“The big challenge, really, was trying to restrain myself and to just stick to my normal way of making a movie,” he continues. “I told myself, ‘Let’s just try to make the same shots you would make if it was live action.’ It just helps the movie feel more real and more organic.”
What hasn’t always been organic is the compromise Snyder has had to make between his vision and Warner Bros.’ expectations of ratings. “The studio always wants PG-13 movies from me — whether it should be PG-13 or not — and I’ve really struggled with that. Sucker Punch [which will be PG-13] is the first time I’ve really tried to do that for them.”
Punch — which stars Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung and Jon Hamm (rumored to be a contender for Superman) — is the story of a teenage girl who imagines escaping, along with four other girls, the 1950s insane asylum they’re trapped in. “These are amazing female characters,” Deborah says. “They’re complex. Female action roles can be very one-dimensional. These girls are tough — they can kick butt — but they can also cry and be sexy. They can be all these things — and to have five of them is a rare thing.”
Despite his differences with the studio, Snyder says he’s happy with the result. “It feels a little bit like a compromise, but I feel it’s appropriate for the theme. If it had been as violent or as sexual as some of the other ones that I’ve made, it would have taken away from the overall idea [of the story].”
But that doesn’t mean he lets his standards slip. “I try and make each movie like I’ll never make another,” Syder says. “You kind of have to think about that. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it on the next one.’ There’s a really good chance you’ll never make another movie — and I don’t mean because you’re going to die — just because you’re not going to get the opportunity.”